BIRMINGHAM, England (AP) — The Vatican declared Pope Benedict XVI’s four-day visit to Britain a “great success” Sunday, saying the pontiff was able to reach out to a nation wary of his message and angry at his church’s sex abuse scandal.
On his final day, Benedict praised British heroics against the Nazis to mark the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and moved an Englishman a step closer to possible sainthood.
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said the important thing wasn’t so much the turnout — crowds were much smaller than when Pope John Paul II visited in 1982 — but that Benedict’s warning about the dangers of an increasingly secularized society had been received “with profound interest” from Britons as a whole.
Indeed, the British media coverage was remarkable in the seriousness with which newspapers and television took Benedict’s message, and TV stations ran virtually all of the pope’s speeches, Masses and other events live.
“Everyone is agreed about the great success, not so much from the point of view of the numbers, but … by the fact that the message of the pope was received with respect and joy by the faithful,” Lombardi told reporters.
Prime Minister David Cameron, in his farewell speech before Benedict’s departure ceremony, said the pope had “challenged the whole country to sit up and think, and that can only be a good thing.”
At the same time, he seemed to take issue with Benedict’s contention that secularization was taking hold more and more in Britain.
“Faith is part of the fabric of our country. It always has been and it always will be,” Cameron said shortly before the pope left on a flight from Birmingham Airport. Benedict arrived back in Rome late Sunday night.
That was certainly evident on Sunday, as Benedict beatified Cardinal John Henry Newman before tens of thousands of faithful who paid 25 pounds ($39) to attend. This trip marked the first time pilgrims had been asked by their church to pay to see the pope.
Newman, a 19th century Anglican convert to Catholicism, was honored at an open-air Mass in Birmingham, the spiritual highlight of Benedict’s trip. The theologian was enormously influential in both churches, and Benedict wants to hold him up as a model for the faithful for having followed his conscience despite great costs.
Still, Benedict opened his homily by marking a very different but no less poignant commemoration for a German pope on British soil: the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, when Nazi German bombers attacked Britain during World War II.
“For me, as one who lived and suffered through the dark days of the Nazi regime in Germany, it is deeply moving to be here with you on this occasion and to recall how many of your fellow citizens sacrificed their lives, courageously resisting the forces of that evil ideology,” Benedict told the crowd.
Benedict was forced to join the Hitler Youth and then served in the army before deserting near the end of World War II. He has spoken out before about the evil of the Nazi regime, but not even at the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Poland, nor at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, did he refer to his personal experience as a German who lived through it.
The Mass was the last major event of Benedict’s trip, which saw him again apologizing for the sex abuse scandal, meeting with abuse victims, and praising British bishops for their response to it.
He also sought to ease tensions with the Anglican Church by making a historic visit to Westminster Abbey, seat of the Church of England. He told bishops they should be “generous” in letting Anglicans convert to Catholicism.
The pope issued an unprecedented invitation to Anglicans to join new “personal ordinariates” last year, in which they can convert but retain some of their Anglican liturgical heritage. The invitation was widely seen as the Vatican poaching for converts even though Rome insisted it was merely a pastoral response to requests that had come from Anglicans seeking to join the Catholic Church.
Saturday saw one of the biggest anti-pope protest of Benedict’s five-year papacy as some 10,000 people marched against him through central London, opposed to his policies on homosexuality and contraception and disgusted by the clerical sex abuse scandal.
“You’re Wrong, Catholics Tell Pope,” read the front-page headline in Sunday’s center-left The Independent newspaper, which ran a poll showing seven out of 10 British Catholics believe a woman should have the right to choose an abortion and nine out of 10 support the wide availability of contraceptives.
Yet more than 100,000 cheering people lined London’s streets to watch the pope go by in his Popemobile on Saturday night and another 80,000 massed in Hyde Park for a prayer vigil, remarkable numbers given the indifference and downright hostility prior to the visit and the fact that Catholics make up only 10 percent of Britain’s population.
And an alleged terrorist threat against the pope that resulted in the arrests of six people on Friday appeared to fizzle out. Scotland Yard released the men overnight without charges.
Benedict called Newman a “saintly Englishman” who belongs with a host of other British saints, a strong indication that Newman will be canonized shortly and even made a doctor of the church — a designation reserved for a handful of great Catholic thinkers like St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Therese Lisieux.
Benedict praised Newman for his writings, in particular those on his vision of Catholic education.
“He sought to achieve an educational environment in which intellectual training, moral discipline and religious commitment would come together,” Benedict said.
The pontiff opened his homily by marking the Blitz, which is being commemorated in these days. It was the second time this trip that the German-born pope referred to the battle.
“Seventy years later, we recall with shame and horror the dreadful toll of death and destruction that war brings in its wake, and we renew our resolve to work for peace and reconciliation wherever the threat of conflict looms,” he said.
Birmingham, the base of production for the Spitfire fighter, which was instrumental in defeating the Nazi Blitz, was said to be the most heavily bombed city after London. Nearby in Coventry, a Nov. 15 1940 raid destroyed 4,300 homes, damaged three-fourths of its factories and reduced the medieval Anglican cathedral to ruins.
Sunday marked the first time Benedict celebrated a beatification. Under his own rules, popes don’t beatify, only canonize. The shift was a significant gesture that underscores Benedict’s view that Newman is a crucial model at a time when Christianity is on the wane in Europe.
Associated Press reporters Victor L. Simpson and Robert Barr in London contributed to this report.